Like the Nancy Silverton and Jeong Kwan installments of Chef’s Table from Season 3, the Corrado Assenza episode of Netflix’s hit docuseries focuses on a chef who makes comforting, inexpensive food that’s also extremely sophisticated.
At his humble sweets shop in Noto, Sicily, Assenza makes what some experts consider to be Italy’s finest cannoli, gelati, and granita. What’s more, the chef’s dishes are considered to be distinctly Sicilian, since they showcase the best local produce and dairy from farms in the area. And, beyond the food itself, Assenza’s restaurant Caffè Sicilia is also cherished by diners because it has stayed in the same family for over a hundred years — and now Assenza is bringing a fourth generation into the mix as well.
“The passing of one generation to the next is part of Caffè Sicilia’s history,” the chef explains. “We have clients who first came in a stroller, who today are parents or grandparents.”
At the start of the episode, Assenza explains that he spent a lot of time in his family’s cafe as a child and eventually befriended the chef, a fellow named Roberto, who put him to work in the pastry laboratory doing the kinds of tasks that children are sometimes asked to do in home kitchens. “I’d play in the laboratory with maestro Roberto,” Assenza remembers. “For me, it was a playground.”
At 17, he moved away from home to study agriculture in Bologna. Assenza met a woman, Nives, who became his wife and they settled down. One day, Assenza got a call from his aunt who explained that she wanted him to take over the cafe so that she could retire. If he didn’t make the move, she would sell the family business. “The first thing I immediately thought was, ‘If my aunt sells Caffè Sicilia, then I cannot get in the laboratory,’” he explains. “I will not be able to go to my playroom anymore.”
It was a difficult decision, but ultimately, Assenza and Nives moved back to Noto and took over the restaurant. Assenza wasn’t totally equipped to take over the pastry-making operation by himself, but thankfully, his old pal Roberto was still there. “I learned by looking, watching his hands making the recipes,” he explains.
The chef eventually found his groove, and people loved his desserts. But after a few years, Assenza got tired of serving the same old traditional sweets day in and day out. So in the early 2000s, he experimented, pairing desserts with distinctly non-dessert-like elements, such as an almond granita topped with fresh oysters. The customers hated these creations, so he was forced to switch back to the classics. To make matters worse, his mentor Roberto died, leaving him alone to figure out the fate of the dessert lab.
Assenza’s solution to this creative and existential crisis was to turn to the Romana almond, a quintessential Sicilian ingredient that was on the verge of extinction. Assenza set up direct relationships with the farmers to help facilitate trade and the cultivation of more almond trees, and he also drummed up more interest by serving special dishes made with the nut at a food conference in Milan. Slowly but surely, Assenza’s plan to save the almond worked.
“I rediscovered my purpose, to preserve my land, my Sicily,” he remarks. The almond odyssey helped reenergize his dessert making at Caffè Sicilia.
Assenza’s tale ends with his son, Francesco, learning the ropes of the lab, and the veteran pastry chef toasting to his family and their business at a sumptuous outdoor dinner in the Sicilian countryside. “I’ve chosen my path, and I’ve followed it,” Assenza says. “Now I have no ambition. A life of simplicity, of quality, and my family makes me happy and satisfied.”